Thursday, April 12, 2012
Lessons in my laundry: Hong Kong edition
I do irregular (but extended) business travel. (It comes from living in Australia – when you travel it is usually more than a week.)
And so I find myself needing to wash and iron business shirts and press a suit. Nothing complicated – but strangely the price and procedure changes by country. In New York I usually stay in Brooklyn and my walk to the subway takes me past a Chinese laundry which is breathtakingly cheap – my bag usually costs under $12. That is about a quarter what I would pay in Sydney (which is an expensive city for almost everything) and a third London. Brooklyn seems cheaper than other US cities.
This low-cost laundry (clearly a benefit to me) is made possible by a near-sweatshop centralised Chinese laundry where (immigrant) workers work hard for what may or may not be minimum wage.
When I wrote a post about that I was criticised for daring to state the obvious about income inequality in the United States. It is a taboo topic. In my defence several readers noted that investment bankers regularly press their own shirts in London. I certainly do in Sydney.
When I stayed in a friend's house in Chicago I discovered much to my surprise they did not have an ironing board. I thought it worth a blog post. And whilst the underlying tone was that income inequality was not the finest attribute of a society I have to say it is not entirely a bad thing. The couple I stay with in Chicago are a monstrously successful husband and wife team with children. Very few married women with children pull that off in Sydney – and the reason was obvious. The wife's work life (high profile but only moderately remunerative) relied more than a little on the two nannies and the implied low-wage workers (such as the staff at the local laundry) who relieved her of the mundane house-work that fills many (mostly female) lives in Australia.
This was feminist achievement made possible by income inequality. But it was achievement at a very high level and the USA is better for it.
This trip I stayed at a friend's apartment in Hong Kong. Nice place – not huge – but half-way up the Mountain on Hong Kong Island with an expansive view of skyline (when you can see through the pollution).
I asked to borrow an ironing board. My friend said he could do better. He knocked at a small door past the closet next to the kitchen and out popped a Filipino house-keeper maybe 20 years his senior. She cheerfully laundered my clothes and left them neatly pressed. She also made me breakfast, cleaned up my dishes and made my bed when I went to work.
I made a point of trying to work out her story. She had been a migrant worker throughout her life – mostly in Hong Kong but also in Dubai (which she found harder). She was thinly educated but thought her children (who she had spent years away from) were better prepared than her. The reason for migrant work was to educate her children (though I know nothing about their prospects – the Philippines are not a highly functional place). Unlike Harry Potter she did not show any unhappiness in living in the “cupboard under the stairs”. Instead it was a step-up for her and (especially) for her family. And it was better than Dubai.
But it made me deeply uncomfortable. Migrant workers are a profoundly anti-democratic institution – they provide a class of very-low income people who don't vote. The ethos of democracy is something burnt into my consciousness. In this ethos we are “created” equal (and thus have an equal vote) and dint of luck and hard work (or coming from the right womb) produce inequalities (some deserved, some otherwise). But the vote (hopefully a secret ballot) is one of the great equalisers – and acts to create a more harmonious society (albeit one that will interfere with income distribution to some extent). The woman who cheerfully lived in the cupboard under the stairs challenged what I thought was right in the world.
But then I was in Hong Kong (that is China) and another low-wage worker who does not vote in China seems – well – somewhat irrelevant. And my world view was out of place. Moreover the woman's children were clearly better off for her migrant work. And the Philippines would be a true basket case without remittances.
And low-income workers are a gift to those who get to employ them. They make the Feminist achievements of my above-mentioned Chicago friends possible. They can free productive people to work on things that were productive.
And that was clearly the case for my friend – consciously trying to pick up additional commercial languages (think India), improve his computer processing skills (python) and read a book per week. His ambition to build himself into as fine a thinker (and with as many diversified mental models) as Charlie Munger. Human capital development made possible by the profoundly undemocratic institution of migrant work.
But that was not the only thing people do with their wealth in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Island has become a pastiche of office towers for financial businesses and shopping malls selling the global standard set of luxury goods. Interspersed amongst that are stylish but ultimately vacuous bars where you can get wasted in the time you would have otherwise spent ironing your clothes and doing the dishes. It is not far (just a subway) from Kowloon where you can experience the smells and sounds of Asia – but they joke on Hong Kong Island that you need your passport to go there.
This is a world very different to mine – with some amazingly productive people – their productivity made possible by the institutions of China. Interspersed amongst that the most dilettante hedonistic lifestyle of an elite who can think of nothing better to spend their loot on than Swiss watches and French Brandy.
Whatever: I am going to make a confession. I liked having someone launder my clothes and the stylish bars are very cool. Freeing up all that time to read an extra book per week – that would be very cool too.
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